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Just Let Him Go
An interview with Daljit Nagra

(Issue 22, Autumn 2015)

Daljit Nagra, who lives in Harrow with his wife and two daughters, didn’t start writing poetry in earnest until his early thirties, and published his acclaimed debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! when he was 41.
‘I grew up in West Drayton, about a mile away from Heathrow Airport. My parents came from India. My mum worked in the laundry at Hendon Hospital. Quite a lot of Indians worked there. They all spoke Punjabi and they all seemed to come from the same villages. And my dad worked in concrete factories, the bakeries … Then when I was 16 we bought a shop in Sheffield. It was that classic Indian model of the shop you just shove everything into – the local newspaper, videos to hire, a meat counter …
‘There were no books at home. I watched Bollywood films and Laurel and Hardy, cowboys and Indians. My mum couldn’t read, my dad read a bit, but they tended to work overtime when they could.
‘The secondary school we went to was the worst school in the area. We used to walk around the council estate, which was slightly longer than walking through it, to get to school. I never felt comfortable making that walk. My first year there I was one of three non-white kids in the whole school. Our parents expected us to be very Indian at home, and the minute we stepped out our front door we were completely westernised – into rock music, Kevin Keegan, anything where you fitted in.
‘I think my parents expected me to be a doctor, so I was doing science A-levels just to get them off my back, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do. So I ran away from home, went to Manchester. My parents backed off after that.
‘I came across William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in a bookshop when I was about 18. It was one of those little Everyman pocket-sized books. I read that book for months on end and every time I went back to the poems I found something different in them – and I think that gave me the confidence to want to do A-level English. It was completely life-changing. So I helped out in the shop by day and did evening classes at night. Shakespeare was pretty mind-blowing. It sounded like a foreign language to me but I really enjoyed trying to make sense of it and just the sheer rich music of that language. I was completely hooked. My parents had a post office set up for me to run but I rebelled by going to university to study English.
‘I showed a couple of poems I’d written to a professor there and he said really nice things about them but I just assumed poetry was for really educated, brilliant people so I kind of left it alone until I was in my late twenties, early thirties.
‘After university I did loads of temping jobs. I was one of the bin men for a while in the Penguin Books factory. You got to take one or two books home each day, which was great. Then I did a PGCE. I have been working at the Jewish Free School for about 15 years. I work as a mentor now. It’s a great privilege to have a job like that. Just a couple of days a week, and I can move my days around to fit around the poetry work.’
Drawn to writing again in his early thirties, Nagra went for a free one-to-one session with Ruth Padel at the Southbank Centre. ‘She was incredibly positive and really supportive. She gave me a formula for the future and I more or less followed that.’ Nagra’s first publication was in Rialto magazine. ‘That was so exciting. It gave me the confidence to go to supply teaching, which meant no marking or planning so I had loads of time to write all of a sudden. I didn’t tell my parents. This is going to sound really crazy, but they used to go to a holy man with supposedly spiritual powers and they told me only a few years ago that he said to them, when I was as young as 18, “If he wants to go and do his English degree just let him go. He is going to be a poet one day.” So that’s why they backed off all along and just left me alone!’
Daljit won the Smith/Doorstop pamphlet competition  in 2003 and that pamphlet Oh My Rub! was selected as one of the Guardian Poetry Books of the Year.
‘I won this Forward Prize for Best First Poem – that was in 2004 – and it was announced on the Indian radio station. My parents asked me the usual thing – how much money did you get? – and I said £1,000 and they just went quiet. It’s what they were probably earning in a day in the shop. I told one of my cousins it took me about two years to write that poem and word got around that for two years’ work I got £1,000!
‘I felt the first generation were writing the tourist board poetry, you know, saying, “Oh, we are lovely, us Indians.” I wanted to write a very hustley bustley kind of poem. I was aware that I was going to be reviewed in terms of my identity. So I tried to sort of over brown up, in a way, I tend to just make fun of the whole thing.’ Nagra’s poem ‘Singh Song’ is one such poem. ‘Yeah, about a shopkeeper. That’s taught in GCSEs. The wife makes fun of her parents-in-law, almost in a way that a white racist might, but, you know, those sorts of things go on. The second generation are embarrassed by the first generation to some degree, or resent the imposition of those village values. I grew up being told you have to have an arranged marriage, you don’t talk to people of a different class. We were next door to a lower-class Indian family so I wasn’t allowed to drink or eat anything around there. But my brother and I used to play with the kids, and I would probably have had a glass of water around there if it suited me, I wouldn’t have really cared. My mum was always saying to me, “Don’t talk to girls”. Maybe my parents felt guilty because they had abandoned their own culture so they were trying desperately to impose it in a very unsubtle way on me and my brother. They haven’t become westernised in any way. They are still highly superstitious. They still go and pray to the snake shrine.’
Daljit, now widely recognised as one of the leading poets of his generation in the UK, is working on his third collection. ‘The working title is “British Museumˮ. It’s partly an investigation of Britain’s place in the world and how it deals with outsiders. I think 9/11 set back social cohesion, brown skin was under threat again. It’s difficult for people to tell who is an extremist and who isn’t, and then suddenly we exist in a slightly more paranoid state. There is less compassion for migrants. I know some of my relatives were voting UKIP at the last election, which is shocking – that we have come full circle.
‘The idea of a noble cause to fight for is complicated. This is what the British élite did in the 1930s, they went to Spain. People like Orwell and Auden went to fight the cause. Whoever they are fighting for in Syria, in their own minds they think they are fighting for a noble cause. I went to Bethnal Green Academy last year. I got a sense of it being a really wonderful, multicultural, liberal school, and the kids were asking really intelligent, challenging questions, and yet these girls from there went off to marry men in Syria. What is it that is radicalising them, what language is being used?
‘Auden and Yeats are very interesting in terms of exploring complex political ideas of the age. As a poet, you can be a witness to what is going on around you, and hopefully you can shed some light on your age – some of the moods, some of the ideas, some of the anxieties …
‘I write on the hoof, whenever I can. I tend to just wait for a poem to come and once I have a first draft I just keep ploughing at it, very wilfully, physically, barbarically. Then maybe leave it for a few months. I try not to publish a poem for at least a year.
‘I think teaching workshops makes you become a better writer because it challenges you and excites you about your own work. You have to raise your game. And it’s important to encourage people to have an inner voice. Particularly people of very deprived or immigrant backgrounds who resist that use of the imagination because what is put upon them is to make money, be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman. It’s just really important to flag that you are not a failure if you don’t do that.’